This is another one of those terrific books that defies genre categories…I’m feeling grateful for the Literary Fiction designation! which to me denotes a book notable for excellence in both the writing and the structure of the story. Gregory Blake Smith’s novel The Maze at Windermere is a deeply satisfying experience, especially if you want an immersive read with several plot lines to follow.
The Maze at Windermere pulls you in with a contemporary plot line set in Newport, Rhode Island. In fact, the setting at Newport is the most noticeable unifying theme of the book. The contemporary plot line features Sandy Alison, a former tennis pro who is coping with a sports career that is on the wane and wondering what to do about it. Through a crazy drunken bet involving left-handed tennis, a red motorcycle, and a diamond necklace, Sandy has an “in” with a wealthy Newport family consisting of a young married couple, Tom and Margo du Pont, and Margo’s younger sister Alice. (Note: there is an actual maze in this story; it is a famous feature of Windermere, the du Pont estate; it is entirely made of boxwood; and it first appears on page 9.) There is plenty of time and plenty of room and plenty of backstory for relationships at Windermere to become insanely complicated.
All this messy interpersonal matter is broken up by shifts in characters and timelines that fracture the story in a really pleasing way. There’s an 1896 plot line, in which Mr. Franklin Drexel is seeking a suitable widow for the purposes of marrying and establishing himself in a high society. Mr. Drexel is such a charmer that it’s hard to despise him as much as he probably deserves. There’s an 1863 plot line, right in the middle of Let’s-Play-Guess-the-War, which showcases Henry James before he becomes a literary light. There’s a 1778 plot line, right in the middle of Let’s-Play-Guess-the-War-Round-Two, in which the point of view shifts suddenly to first person and the story is told by a British soldier who reveals himself as an arrogant, manipulative monster. Finally, there’s a 1692 plot line which is also told in first person by Prudy Selwyn, a thoughtful and determined young Quaker girl who must find her own way when she is orphaned. Each plot is effective and each character is well-developed and all the parts work really well together.
It does make me wonder what Mr. Smith has against setting part of his story in the twentieth century. Ho-hum, the twentieth century in Newport! Guess there’s not much going on! Maybe he figures that 1896 is close enough and I’m just being fussy. But I can’t help feeling miffed at the opportunity lost for Let’s-Play-Guess-the-War-Round-Three.
I have mentioned that all the plot lines take place in Newport, Rhode Island. Remember? Newport serves to hold the book together, and it’s interesting to see how each character sees and responds to the beauty of the setting. Also, there are numerous references to mazes throughout. Some of them are references to the actual maze at Windermere, some are to other actual mazes, and some maze references are more metaphorical. The maze references are noticeable but not overdone. Just right.
Prudy Selwyn gets the last word in the story. Just in case anybody was wondering.
Other new literary fiction titles include:
Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Edgar & Lucy by Victor Lodato